Trends: Non-educators Leading School Districts

By Daniel MasseyThe Daily News’ front cover last Wednesday summed up the general reaction to publishing executive Cathleen Black’s selection as city schools chancellor: “Huh?” In fact, choosing nontraditional professionals to run school systems has become more commonplace nationwide in the eight years since Michael Bloomberg tapped Joel Klein, an education outsider, to lead the schools here.
Challenging the status quo, this new breed has pushed reform agendas that stress measurable results. Individuals from outside education now lead 5% of the country’s largest 200 urban school districts, according to the Los Angeles-based Broad Center for the Management of School Systems. In 2009 alone, 43% of the 28 vacancies in large districts were filled by graduates of the center’s Superintendents Academy, which specializes in training leaders with unconventional backgrounds.
“There’s a difference between being a teacher and leading an organization that’s focused on teaching,” says Becca Bracy Knight, executive director of the Broad Center. “You can have someone running a great symphony who isn’t a concert violinist. It doesn’t mean the violinist isn’t important; it’s just a different skill set.”
At Ms. Black’s introductory press conference last week, Mr. Bloomberg called her a “world-class manager,” and said that her ability to handle a budget and a staff trumped her lack of education credentials. “Our problem is making sure an organization with a $23 billion budget, with 135,000 employees, that has to deal with every level of government, that has to deal with all sorts of social problems, is able to function.”
As chairman of Hearst Magazines, Ms. Black oversaw 2,000 employees who produced over 200 editions of 14 magazines in 100 countries. The company’s U.S. revenue fell 19% last year, to $1.8 billion, but there’s no estimate of its international revenue, according to Ad Age. Supporters say Ms. Black’s skills will be critical with budget cuts looming. They also argue that the foundation of reform is in place, and what’s needed is someone who can complete it.
“The key now is to pull all the stakeholders together to get it implemented,” says Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City. “That’s a job that really requires the kind of management, communication and consensus-building skills that Cathie Black has.”

Finding support in the ranks

Mr. Bloomberg also pointed out that the chancellor has support from a team of eight deputies—most of them with extensive education experience. One, Photeine Anagnostopoulos, resigned within hours of Ms. Black’s hiring becoming public, however, and keeping the others could prove a challenge. For example, Eric Nadelstern, Mr. Klein’s top deputy, was passed over. That surprised insiders, who felt his four decades of experience in the system positioned Mr. Nadelstern to be the next chancellor.
Other outsiders who have taken over school systems say Ms. Black faces the challenge of a lifetime. Their advice? That she listen.
Jonathan Raymond managed a nonprofit with a $9 million budget before transitioning into education administration in 2006. In 2009, he was appointed superintendent of the Sacramento City Unified School District, which has 47,000 students and a $370 million budget.
Mr. Raymond said he visited all of the system’s 82 schools in his first 110 days on the job. “As nontraditional leaders, we come in with a lot of the right skills on the business side, but what we often neglect in an effort to make change is the importance of building consensus,” he says. “I had to take time to really listen and learn from the community.”

Expectations not always aligned

Paula Dawning, a former vice president of sales at AT&T, led the Benton Harbor Area Schools System, one of Michigan’s poorest and most chronically underperforming districts, for five years before retiring in 2007. In her first two years, fourth-grade reading scores doubled, and the overall dropout rate fell 20%.
Ms. Dawning warns that Ms. Black’s job will be her toughest, with parents, teachers, the business community and government maneuvering for influence. “One of the big differences going from the private to the public sector was you had so many constituencies you had to respond to,” she says. “And their expectations are not necessarily aligned.”
Both Mr. Raymond and Ms. Dawning attended the Broad Center’s academy, while Ms. Black is taking charge of 1.1 million students without any training. (Ms. Knight says the center will offer the new chancellor a “crash course.”)
While Messrs. Raymond and Klein and Ms. Dawning experienced success, outsider failures include Julius Becton, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general who resigned after two years of struggling as head of the D.C. system.
Jeffrey Henig, professor of political science and education at Teachers College-Columbia University, says, “Lots of folks believe if you bring in a tough organizer and manager and array the right staff you can make up for lack of substantive knowledge, but the case for that hasn’t been made.” Though it can be done, he adds, “it’s just a harder row to hoe, and it’s not clear to me why that would be your first choice.”
Ms. Black is expected to bring a less confrontational style to the job than her predecessor, but some experts doubt that, given her dearth of experience, Ms. Black will challenge Mr. Klein’s policies.
“I will be very surprised if she turns out to be independent or concludes that some of the things Klein did were not so great,” says Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Do you think non-educators, like Black, are qualified to lead school systems?


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Filed under Politics, Schools, Statistics, United States

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